Outdoor School: Contemporary Environmental Art

The first colour photograph in Outdoor School: Contemporary Environmental Art, 2021, edited by Amish Morrell and Diane Borsato, is of a weathered iPhone with a millennial pink protective case. Its screen faces upward as it rests on a large rock or on some sort of concrete pavement. An assortment of wildflowers sits next to the device, as though gently placed there after a bountiful foraging excursion. Displayed on the iPhone screen is an image of Venice, Italy, its renowned canals under a pristine blue sky. This initial image encapsulates many of the themes present throughout Outdoor School, from the intersections of the natural world and the urban built environment, to human-made technologies and organic systems of life and the underlying aesthetic beauty and healing power of native fauna and flora. The visual juxtaposition of plants, a cellphone and the mineral grey background points towards the book’s discourse of collaborative openness, intergenerational exchange and the impact of collective knowledge in experiencing local ecosystems first-hand.

First used as the title of a course taught by Borsato at the University of Guelph in 2014, “Outdoor School” represents a shared, ongoing pedagogical, conceptual, creative and experiential endeavour between the contemporary Canadian artist and her partner, art critic and curator Amish Morrell. Both educators, Morrell and Borsato have expanded their platform for contemporary environmental art as an embodied, relational expressive form through various iterations of workshops, residencies, tours, exhibitions, essays, courses and now this 192-page publication. Featuring more than 25 Canadian and Indigenous artists who propose new ways of being in the outdoors together, Outdoor School moves fluidly from the institution to the vegetable garden, from the white-walled gallery to the nearby woods, and from the musty studio or laboratory to the cold, moist and aromatic dirt in the park. In doing so, it dips into the wondrously rich worlds of water-witching (Alana Bartol), classroom goat milking (Bill Burns), somatic visioning monoprints (Sameer Farooq), the benefits of slow walking (Aislinn Thomas) and the colourful art of turtle learning (FASTWÜRMS), among many other curious practices.

Diane Borsato and Amish Morrell, Outdoor School: Contemporary Environmental Art, Habour Publishing, 2021.

Unlike the inaccessibility of what is shown in present-day outdoor industry publications, which still reproduce colonial tropes of the white, virile adventurer conquering the unchartered wild, Outdoor School grounds itself in an Indigenous understanding of nature that recognizes our complex and never fully fulfilled relationships and responsibilities to the land. The BUSH Manifesto, printed in collaboration with BUSH Gallery (Tania Willard, Peter Morin, Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill and Jeneen Frei Njootli), immediately illustrates this notion. A list of affirmations about its identity as a collective, a “space for dialogue, experimental practice and community engaged work,” makes unequivocal the values of Indigenous knowledges and creative production to the overall Outdoor School project: “BUSH Gallery is on the land, researches the land, goes to the land, because land is the foundation of Indigenous life and Indigenous struggle.” The full-page photographs in this section depict the diverse activities of BUSH Gallery, including images from the project “Coney Island Baby,” 2016, where two animal furs are washed in a six-gallon plastic bucket; a “Birchbark Basket Workshop,” 2016, led by Hayley Bowie that pictures a group of people in dexterous production around a bright red-clothed round table; and a festive evening beach bonfire scene from “Beach(fire) Blanket Bingo Biennial,” 2019.

“Outdoor School,” 2018, residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts. Led by Diane Borsato, Amish Morrell and Tania Willard.

In addition to essays by scholars, curators and artists, which take the forms of descriptive texts, theoretical reflections, poems and manifestos, two conversations expand on the diverse possibilities of Outdoor School. In talking with the socially engaged artist Jen Delos Reyes, Borsato and Morrell discuss the importance of bridging different ways of knowing nature, from the expert scientist to the everyday enthusiast, from the tenured philosopher professor to the newly acquainted mycologist. Learning from the outdoors is a common motif, as is the significance of teaching, providing mentorship and extending the classroom into a shared, embodied, intergenerational practice. This emphasis on pedagogy in Outdoor School is apparent throughout in the multitude of photographs. Participants are pictured learning in relatable urban green sites or uniquely beautiful mountainous landscapes in the Canadian Rockies or cold oceanfront expanses on Cape Breton Island. These recurring instances of smiling and laughing peers create a unique sense of warmth, genuine encounter, mutual pleasure and lightness.

Far from its art historical predecessors of 1970s land art or 1990s relational aesthetics, which were still working through concepts of monumentality, questions of ownership and the ethical dynamics of social interaction as an aesthetic product, Outdoor School anchors itself in a pluralistic and intersectional model of artmaking. As such, it prioritizes open processes, unscripted human exchanges and unscored performative approaches to teaching and learning about the biome. The poet Karen Houle best describes this reckoning with historical antecedents to contemporary outdoor culture when discussing its legacies of settler colonialism, sexism, racism and patriarchy. In her essay “Farm as Ethics,” she outlines how Western philosophy and culture have corrupted our relationships to the land. Prompted by Anishinaabe Elder and storyteller Jan Sherman, she rediscovers an environmental “ethic-ing” rooted in the soil and the seeds, and also a passion for sharing her knowledge of farming with her university students as a healing and holistic skill. In these moments, Outdoor School complicates the privileges of academia and the art world, as well as the romantic envisioning of outdoor recreation and the lustre of large-scale environmental art.

Ayumi Goto, Rinrigaku, 2016, performance. Photo: Yuula Benivolski. Banff Centre for the Arts.

Through stimulating visuals and enlightening textual contributions, Outdoor School reimagines a covenant with the earth that is centred on thinking and doing together. By activating single points on a much larger rhizome or sentient network, Borsato and Morrell encourage conversation and natural immersion. Far from the aggressive and defeated tone of certain climate-crisis contemporary art, the publication prompts the reader to be curious, active and engaged locally, to step outside and look closer at the ground, the organic growth and wildflower bursting between the pavement’s cracks. ❚

Outdoor School: Contemporary Environmental Art, ed. Amish Morrell and Diane Borsato, Harbour Publishing, 2021, 192 pages, hardcover, $44.50.

Didier Morelli is a PhD candidate in performance studies at Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois). His dissertation focuses on the relationship between the built environment and the kinesthetic nature of performing bodies.